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  • Writer's pictureDr Joanne Stuart

The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Demystifying the physical symptoms of anxiety.The ‘fight and flight’ response enables humans to become much stronger, and was useful, for example when a human needed to fight off a wild animal or be able to run away. There are stories where someone was able to show super human strength, when their child was in danger – that is the ‘fight and flight’ response at work.


The Brain mechanism:

In the brain there is the amygdala.  The amygdala is a central part of the limbic system, which is the most ancient part of the brain and this area of the brain reacts before any other part. The limbic system reacts to danger without thinking about whether it is actually dangerous or not.


What happens in our body?

When the ‘fight and flight’ response is triggered we take in more oxygen, our breaths are faster and shallower. Our heart beats faster and this allows the blood to be pumped around the body quicker - carrying the oxygen to the muscles to make them stronger. Adrenalin and cortisol are released and these are stress hormones.


The parts of the body that are not needed stop working or work less well. For example, we stop digesting food, this sometimes gives the sensation of ‘butterflies’. We stop sending so much oxygen to the brain, this gives the sensation to some people that they feel light-headed or dizzy. Some people feel faint when they are feeling anxious, but in fact because our blood pressure has gone up, rather than down, it is impossible for us to faint in these circumstances.


Although the ‘fight and flight’ response can be a very useful survival mechanism, in our day and age it appears to be triggered in situations where we perceive ourselves to be in what we term ‘social danger’.


The ‘fight and flight’ response is triggered in these ‘social danger’ situations because we hypothesise that if we make a fool of ourselves than we may be rejected by others, if we are rejected by others we are more likely to live alone, if we live alone we are less likely to survive. So the ‘fight and flight’ response is not only triggered by immediate physical danger, but it also seems to be triggered by cultural understandings of shame and rejection.

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